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On building a new kind of post-westphalian civic economy…

December 26, 2012

This is an edited extract of a post on a private blog as part of a leadership program I’m currently part involved with. The text below is a response I gave to the following question

And this: “Part of building a new kind of post-westphalian civic economy.” Please say more about your vision when you can.”

Yes I guess it sounds a little grandiose when put like that huh?

 I’ll say more about what I mean if you allow me the indulgence to geek out a little.

The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) is usually credited with the beginning of the legal dimension of sovereignty (LR) and provided the frame for nationalist identity to grow (LL). That along with the development of rational-analytical thought, industrial modernity and the social movements and contracts of the 19th and 20th century (free education, eight hour day, suffragette movement, minimum wages, social security, public healthcare etc) the suite of policies that constituted the welfare state gave rise to the middle classes and the remarkable levels of prosperity, security and quality of life that the global north enjoys (and often overlooks in our whining self indulgence 🙂 )

Such policy levers if you like, were framed around and expressed through the nation-state as the fundamental unit of power (the ultimate entity with the ability to influence behaviour, resting on Weber’s observation of sovereignty as the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence). Both the public statements at the leadership level about who we extend care and concern to as a community and the legal and coercive ability to enforce were (largely) bounded by the frontiers of State jurisdiction. Even the Bretton Woods institutions formed after the Second World War as a first blush at global governance were still built solidly around the nation-state architecture and the expression of power currently bound up in those sub-units. I think that’s largely why they’re so defunct today, for the UN to really be effective in some global governance capacity the veto power of the security council’s permanent members would have to shift, and I can’t see the USA, China, Russia, UK or France agreeing to that anytime soon.

Although I can rage against the industrial machine, like a good integral lad, I recognise what it afforded was an incredible bloom in evolutionary terms (I do recognise the deep insight in Geoff’s point about loving the world enough to hold it, especially if you’re interested in changing it). This conversation (much less the ipad i type it on or the latte I’m sipping in between thoughts) is absurd without it. However what I do think happened from the 60s- Silent Spring, Apollo photographs and social movements of that era pointed to the fraying of the modern institutional hems. From the late 1970s onwards the techno-economic architecture allowed business and the powerful, certainly encouraged by the legal and policy dismantling of Thatcher/Regan era, to move beyond the constrictions of State protections and multinational entities to take advantage of the disparity of worker and environmental protection across different legal jurisdictions etc. As many asylum seekers find out in the most brutal of fashions when they turn up to Australia by boat, it’s globalisation for the powerful and the iron fist of State control for the weak.

We now know many of our problems can only be addressed with some kind of global coordination and can’t be solved by any one Nation-State taking action (climate change, terrorism, pandemics, global trade relationships). The incentives for change and action are weak compared to the disincentives (the apocalyptic brouhaha about a pathetically modest carbon tax here being only an easy to point to example). The threat of capital flight (if you try and increase mining taxes for example) is a multinational guillotine hanging over the head of elected national governments. (See Simpol for one take on how to coordinate international policy without the need for an overarching authority).

Now, I don’t think States can (or even should) try and keep regulatory step with the rapidity of the change, I don’t think it’s feasible or desirable to look back to a fictional golden era and I don’t think we want to do anything to slow down innovation. I was one of the first generations in this country to receive environmental and multicultural education from primary school. We grew up being taught a sense of civic responsibility to the planet. We left school to find the vocational options rarely aligned with these sentiments.

“Thus, ideals and idealism fall aside when confronted with the old structure. Apathy and passive aggression results.”

It’s part of the reason so few idealists of my generation go into conventional politics (the ones that do tending to have a pathological desire for power) and tend to start globally focussed NGOs etc.

So, for most of my adult life I’ve been sitting in various corners of the world wondering what I can do about all of this? Try and climb the ladder of institutional power to make some positive changes? Well I gave up on that long ago when I dropped out my first commerce/arts degree, intuiting that these institutions had their own logic very difficult to shift from the inside, and there was a missing piece of the human puzzle (interiors). But I also know there are lots of other people like me, sitting (in various states of under-utilisation) around the world holding the same question, and working as small fish in various capacities. These outliers tend to congregate around the edges (sometimes just the fringes), places like the Hub.

When I look at politics and the general collapse of the Left-Right political philosophy, and the technocratic managerialism that I’ve witnessed in professionals that work in the global governance institutions (UN, WTO, WB), I wonder if a better way to frame the divide is between insiders and outsiders, or the centre and periphery (if we liberate those terms from their Marxist heritage) rather than Left-Right. So how do we join this cognitive surplus up to create a thriving whole much greater than the sum of thier individual and partial impact. How do we make globalisation work for the good, not just the powerful? How do we find a path for collective engagement beyond the anachronistic debates of labour versus markets, technology versus environment etc?

Already new kinds of imagined communities are forming relatively independently of State boundaries, our little cohort just one example. The exchange of ideas and value happens all the time across borders, and the continuing technological innovations (skype, all the emerging cloud based software tools) mean that the ability to coordinate at a global level that was only the domain of the super elite is freely accessible to most folks with a computer and internet access. That’s the post-westphalian part.

We also have significant portions of the population who identify with some kind of global ethics, however they understand or interpret it. The notion of a civic responsibility to humankind, to the civilisation as a whole or to the planet (kosmos?), makes more sense to a lot of folks than provincial local or national identities (and yes I know the reverse is also true) yet as there is no substantive entity or polity to embody and represent these perspectives in the public sphere it tends to get subsumed and silenced by the existing voices of institutional power (I often watch Obama’s speeches with interest as his rhetoric starts to move into the domain of truly global leadership – freedom and dignity for all human beings, climate change etc, but is then pulled back down to the ‘we’re number one jingoisim’ that the rest of the world finds so distasteful…I don’t blame Obama, he has to speak to the logic of the power that puts him there, but it does reinforce the idea that genuine global leadership would have to be couched in different language and voiced through a different entity). The point is, there is a serious number of people on the planet who identify with some kind of global ethics and responsibility beyond what they are legally required to do in the jurisdictions to which they belong. That’s the civic part.

The economic part is the hard part 🙂 The problem is what to do. I see the these globally civic minded outliers scattered across all kinds of sectors and industries, but there tends to be a pattern of frustration with existing institutional culture…so what to do? Become a coach, a consultant, a speaker, a writer an academic? I see this path taken a lot.

But I wonder what actually building a global network founded on a sense of global ethics with the ability to rapidly scale up to meet large challenges, loosely connected by a new kind of institutional infrastructure. . The Hub network has about 40 locations around the world now, and the rhizomes continue to grow at the local level, we have a community of 7000 people largely that have taken on a degree of autonomy about managing their own work situation. From the earliest moments of my engagement, I always saw the oaktree in the acorn of what the Hub network is today. So how do we develop the technological infrastructure and management protocols to join up these little fish…and build a new kind of economy. That’s what I mean when I talk about a post-westphalian, civic economy.

When it comes down to it, most of the reason that I don’t have stable and conventional work is because I spend my time reflecting on and laying the groundwork to set up the above. Everything else feels like a distraction from the the real work. I guess my ambiguity does arise from certainty after all.

I can see however, that the world I describe here is just a story, another narrative thread in the collective tapestry in which we wrap ourselves and the planet. It has its place alongside other stories. But it’s the one I’m working with at the moment…

In my preferred world, I would like to see far flatter organizations, far more globalization (for labour, culture and capital), far more support for family friendly work/culture, and the use of technologies globally to move from fake work, to work that fits into deeper purposes – this is sustainability (the triple bottom line) plus transformation (moving to a global ethics) and creating the legal framework for far more authentic global and local governance. Whether this is possible is a far different story.

-Sohail Inayatullah

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